Are Trainers and Their Dogs Perfect?

world's longest tongue edit smallI recently posted on Facebook about my morning at the park with Sierra. I’d had her off leash in a semi-remote area we often frequent, when she suddenly stopped running and went into predatory stalk mode. She crouched low and remained stock still. I thought the German Shepherd who sometimes patrols behind a chain link fence we were coming up on might be visible, but he wasn’t. Regardless, I knew she saw something, and that her next step would be bursting into motion and running toward whatever had caught her attention. I called her to me. Guess what—she didn’t come. I then whipped out the Mom Voice, and she came running in record time. I leashed her, and gave her a piece of hot dog and praise. When I looked up again, I saw a coyote standing less than 50 feet from us, staring directly at us. He must have been there the entire time, watching us. Having my camera with me, I held Sierra tightly on leash, took a few photos, and then moved on.

I was surprised by the comments on the post thanking me for being truthful about Sierra not coming the first time. Then I thought about it. We don’t often hear professional trainers talk about how something didn’t work out perfectly, or how training failed. You might be surprised to know that many professionals, some quite well known, have dogs who every now and then do things like jump up on the dining room table with all four feet, jump on visitors, and worse. Sometimes those dogs had issues that were there when they were adopted—many trainers end up adopting the worst behaved dogs—and the issues aren’t fixed yet; and sometimes it’s a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. But I have heard some of my favorite trainers and lecturers admit to being less than perfect, and I respect them all the more for being open and honest. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many more who portray themselves as infallible. The thing is, we’re human, dogs are dogs, and s*#& happens. To everyone.

It’s like those trainers who guarantee they can fix any dog’s issues, regardless of the problem or severity. Those claims never seem to take into consideration things like genetic predisposition, how intense the behavior is or how long it’s been going on, the dog’s age, health, or a multitude of other factors. There’s even one company that guarantees to fix your dog’s behavior in one session! If that doesn’t happen, there’s a lifetime guarantee, meaning the trainer will come out as many times as necessary. But why make such an unrealistic claim in the first place, not to mention that if the trainer really doesn’t know how to address the issue, how is having him/her return endlessly going to help?

I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes. My dogs make mistakes. Of course I train them and expect them to comply. Who wants a trainer with poorly behaved dogs? But instinct is incredibly strong, particularly in dogs like Sierra who are a bit on the wild side. I would never be so pompous to claim that because I’m such an amazing trainer, my dogs never do anything they shouldn’t. (Have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf? Hah!) Or, that I have superhuman powers that allow my training to trump instinct every single time. Yes, I can call my dogs off squirrels, another dog, and, as evidenced this morning, a coyote. But I won’t say it’s easy or that it works 100% of the time. Humility, paired with caution, goes a long way toward keeping everyone safe.

We should absolutely strive to train our dogs to the highest level of compliance, practice, proof, and practice some more. But professionals do a disservice to owners and to other trainers when they represent themselves as infallible. I’ve had many people comment about how relieved they are that something I shared in a blog post, “could happen to a professional.” The truth is, it does happen. To all of us. So let’s train, train, train—but let’s be honest as well.
_________________________________________________________________You can find my books and seminar DVDs here and my photography here. You can also find me Facebook and Twitter.

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9 Responses to Are Trainers and Their Dogs Perfect?

  1. Jeff Dentler says:

    My mentor, trainer and SAR expert Susan Bulanda, always told us “everything works some of the time, and nothing works all of the time.” Dogs are living, breathing animals, not robots. They do what they do, and we sometimes make mistakes. Like you said s*#& happens.

  2. nissetje says:

    “Mom Voice.” Love it!

  3. Nobody’s perfect! Not even dogs! 🙂

  4. cheryl belt says:

    Having a dog means training on a daily basis, no way around it. Unfortunately when having a pit type where others see the dog in public when it is not behaving well it then puts those observers into the anti-breed discrimination mode.

  5. Diane says:

    I loved that post and have shared it with fellow dog trainers and dog lovers! I have found that people do think because I’m a dog trainer that my dogs should be perfect, however they aren’t and neither
    am I 🙂 I love them, train them and know that they are dogs as I’m a human with flaws, bad days and some days make mistakes!

  6. Bill Weiler says:

    Nature vs nurture!! My Brittany was running an outdoor agility course last Fall – headed for the A-frame (her favor) and stopped dead, turned to the fence, and did a letter perfect point!! No one told us they had stocked pheasant in the adjoining field. I think I’m a decent trainer, but I “ain’t no pheasant!”

  7. That “Mom Voice” thing is something worth exploring further. My dogs have trained me on how to train them, both our rescued family members and rescue fosters. I do use different voice tones for a number of different situations with (mostly) good results.

  8. I could not agree more with you Nicole. As a trainer, I have had the same things happen to me with my dogs that my clients have happen with their dogs. When you come to my home, yes, you will get a dog that jumps on you. Or won’t stop barking. Becasue after all, they are dogs and we are human. My dogs are far from perfect and I don’t have them trained perfectly. We work hard on being good role models for the clients I work with. But I am not perfect. I find I have a different problem where people think I and my dogs “should” be perfect becasue, after all, I am a dog trainer. That is what kills me. I am glad you are not perfect and neither are your dogs. It entices me to want to continue to
    learn from you.

  9. Cindy Conley says:

    Well said!!!!

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